by Whitney Youngs
Some bluegrass enthusiasts believe the genre’s quintessential sound dates back to 1939 when Kentucky native Bill Monroe, regarded as the father of bluegrass, appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. Others insist the sound gelled in 1945 once Earl Scruggs joined Monroe’s band.
While the origins of the traditional bluegrass sound may be up for debate, the genre dates back to 17th century America when Irish, English, and Scottish immigrants brought with them basic stylings from their homelands. Bluegrass borrowed elements of the blues and the music took hold in the Appalachian region of the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Monroe was heavily influenced by the fiddle playing and singing of his mother and uncle, along with the fiddling and guitar playing of Arnold Shultz, a then-popular Black musician and the son of a former slave.
Over the years, bluegrass artists reshaped the genre but preserved its signature instrumentation of strings like the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, upright bass, and guitar; bluegrass is a remarkable genre when you think about it, as it mainly consists of voices and stringed instruments. One such band of artists, Greensky Bluegrass, has explored the expanse of bluegrass for the past 22 years.
“We aren’t a band all for money,” says mandolinist Paul Hoffman. “We did it for romantic reasons such as love, catharsis, and because it mattered to us and the listeners. It would be easy to make decisions based on our needs to eat or the desires of others, but that’s not doing it for love. We love what we do, and we’re grateful for the love we receive in return from the people listening.”
The quintet —Anders Beck (dobro), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Mike Devol (upright bass), and Hoffman—hails from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and released its eighth studio album, Stress Dreams, in January 2022 on Thirty Tigers records.
“Greensky is and always has been very unique in our world,” says Hoffman. “We put our love, energy, and focus into what we appreciate about our music. We come together as a band in a way that’s organic. We take a lot of pride in how we grow and challenge each other too. We’re maturing together. I think we get more Greensky all of the time.”
Like so many other artists, Greensky Bluegrass took advantage of the pandemic lockdown to write songs for the new album and when conditions permitted, they recorded those songs at studios in Vermont and North Carolina. Greensky Bluegrass co-produced Stress Dreams with its old friend, bassist Dominic John Davis, best known for his work with Jack White.
“It didn’t feel like we were squeezing this project into the schedule,” says Devol. “The lack of gigs gave us the freedom to get together solely to work on this. It was a relaxed environment. There wasn’t the pressure of time; the songs got space to breathe.”
The album of 13 songs includes, “Grow Together,” a joyful tune with a chorus floating above the pines, the word “grow,” sung in a series of notes that seem to swing right out of Hoffman’s mouth. Halfway through the tune, Beck layers over an electric twinkling from a plugged-in, amped-out dobro.
“It was the first tune I had written in a really long time,” says Hoffman. “My daughter was just born. When she was five weeks old, I sat down on the floor with her and spit this one out. It was an appreciation for my wife and what it meant to become a father.”
Greensky Bluegrass plays BeachLife Ranch September 18.